Driving west on Montana’s two-lane Route 2, Mortensen smokes an occasional American Spirit cigarette while his son sits quietly in the backseat, staring ahead. A silver Middle Eastern evil-eye talisman that the two made dangles from the rearview mirror, along with a feather and a couple of Sioux medicine wheels. Mortensen futzes with them, trying to get them to hang in a certain way, until Henry asks him to stop.
Q: I heard stories about your fishing trips into the backwoods of New Zealand.
VM: Henry, should I not tell him about the rabbit?
HM: It’s really gross.
VM: Rabbits sometimes run out in front of your car, right? Well, I hit this rabbit on this lonely road in the South Island and I wanted to make sure it was dead. If it wasn’t, I’d put it out of its misery. And it was quite dead, so I thought, ‘Well, why waste it?’ And so I made a little fire and ate it.
Q: Is this something you thought Aragorn would have done?
VM: As he was driving down the road and if he hit a rabbit? Yeah, he might. If he was hungry, I guess.
Q: So, I guess not really . . . It was more just a Viggo thing.
VM: I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is good. I can use this in the movie.”
Q: Sounds kind of Native American.
VM: It was fresh. That, I knew.
Mortensen’s intense dedication to embodying Aragorn—as well as those wildlife adventures off the set—quickly became legendary among the Rings cast and crew. He would sleep in shacks by the water and camp in the forest while his costars slept in more refined quarters. He carried his sword everywhere—whether it was in his car or into restaurants. “He is the most committed, most devoted, the most . . . He transforms his entire life into the character,” says Sean Astin. “I’ve never seen an actor go there the way this guy does.”
And he made the leap quickly: With just four days to practice sword fighting and horse riding, endure costume fittings, and learn his lines, Mortensen suddenly found himself shooting the challenging Fellowship battle scene on Weathertop, in which Aragorn battles the evil Ringwraiths, who are intent upon stealing the Ring.
“I’m still shocked that that was the first thing he did,” says Wood, who had an early dinner with Mortensen during which he found him hard to talk with. “But when he started working, there was no question. This was Aragorn, this was the man who was meant to play this role. We had an immense amount of respect for him for being able to jump in so quickly.”
Mortensen’s facility with the sword became immediately apparent. “The people who were teaching him said that he was insanely talented,” says Miranda Otto, who plays the Lady Éowyn, who falls for Aragorn. “There’s one scene [at the end of] the first film where a knife is thrown at Aragorn, who clocks it with his sword. One of the stunt guys who was meant to be his double said, ‘I’ve been practicing that and I’ve never been able to [hit the knife] once, and Viggo hits it on the first take. I hate him.’”
Mortensen’s humble attitude and willingness to do his own stunts earned him the nickname “No-Ego Viggo” among the crew. “He was always taking out stuntmen and buying them beer because he hit them one too many times,” says Orlando Bloom. “He just goes for it. Viggo’s energy is endless. He knows no limit.”
Perhaps the most grueling stretch in the production was the three-month shoot of the siege of Helm’s Deep, a fortified retreat wedged next to a mountain that features prominently in The Two Towers. In the sequence, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas join the people of Rohan in fighting off the marauding forces of Saruman. The months of night shooting, without break, eventually took their toll on Mortensen.
“He had no knuckles,” laughs makeup man Perez. “He’d been virtually slaughtered by everyone because he would not let anyone do his rehearsals. All his knuckles were completely bruised and cut and God knows what else. Every time that he had a scene, I said, ‘Okay, now where did they hit you?’ ”
In one take, Mortensen was battling an Uruk-hai, a powerful and ferocious strain of orc, when a blade that was jutting from an extra’s armor slashed into his face. “I thought, Oh my God, he’s lost his face,” recalls Perez, who then saw that the blade had somehow missed Mortensen’s flesh but split his tooth—literally in half. “I said, ‘You lost half a tooth.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Look for it. You can stick it on with super glue.’ And I said, ‘No, come on, don’t be silly, you can’t.’ ” Mortensen finally relented and went to a dentist’s office, still in full battle armor.
But Mortensen’s commitment extended beyond matters of the flesh. “He brought to Aragorn this huge internal life that you don’t see as much in the book,” says Otto. “He became more and more Aragorn, and less and less Viggo.”
Mortensen’s desire to make Aragorn more than a “cardboard cutout” hero can be heard in his nuanced explanation of his character’s orphan mentality or the pitfalls of his heritage as a Númenórean (a unique breed of human). Mortensen says that he wishes Fellowship “would have been longer,” and that he especially misses several cut scenes in which Aragorn’s relationship with the elves is further illuminated. (He’s happy that there’s a special expanded edition of The Fellowship on DVD, a version that adds another 30 minutes to the 178-minute movie.)
Mortensen’s dedication found its way regularly to Jackson’s fax machine. “Viggo commits himself to a project with the same intensity as the filmmakers—which is rare for an actor,” the director says. “After the end of a long day’s shooting, when all the other cast would be either in bed or in the bar, [partner and coscreenwriter Fran Walsh] and I would be home grappling with the script for next week’s shooting. At midnight, a nine-page handwritten memo would come rattling through the fax from Viggo, outlining his thoughts about that day’s work and the next few days to come. He would suggest passages from the book we should look at. This wasn’t an exception—over 15 months, it became the rule. In the small hours, it was actually comforting to know there was somebody else out there grappling with the same nightmare that we were.”
Mortensen’s strong identification with Aragorn even puts him at odds with his director on at least one point.The actor circuitously tells of hearing of an interview about The Lord of the Rings. “They were talking about how the audience’s point of view was with the hobbits because they were the most human. And then the [interviewer] asked, ‘Well, what about Boromir or Aragorn?’ They said, ‘Well, those guys are these fighting machine–noble warrior types, and they’re idealized,’ ” Mortensen says. “And I thought, ‘Totally wrong. Not the way Sean Bean did it. Not the way I did it. And not the way Tolkien wrote it.’ ”
Mortensen eventually admits that it was Jackson who made the statement. “I was surprised,” he says. And then, hopefully: “It may have been taken out of context.”
The sparsely traveled road is lined with fir and spruce trees as it winds its way through Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. Mortensen looks out for mule deer and occasionally makes sure that Henry is comfortable in the back. Sometimes, Mortensen talks so softly, he’s almost inaudible. His frequent pauses aren’t an opportunity for response, but a mental breather before he mumbles on. When he is done with a thought, he seems relieved that his turn to speak has passed. Despite being dead tired, when he sees a lake that is sprinkled with dozens of ripples from feeding fish, Mortensen is eager to stop and throw a line in, but it’s getting dark. He glances down at the tape recorder between us and releases an exaggerated groan of self-pity.
VM: Henry, I keep asking Tom what’s the interview about, and he says he doesn’t know.
Q: Come on. It’s about you and The Lord of the Rings.
VM: Henry, can you help me? Let’s just take care of the bastard. All Tom wants to talk about is Oscars and magazine covers and … what else does he …
Q: Fame. Fame.
VM: Yeah. Oh, that. Oh, that.
Q: Why not talk about your attitude toward Hollywood?
VM: Henry, he comes all the way out here, and he wants to talk about those things. My goodness. All I can say is, my goodness.
Mortensen spent some of his earlier years out here, in Idaho, but that was just one of many stops along the way. His Danish-born father, Viggo Sr., who worked a variety of jobs (“on farms and in small businesses, ” Mortensen says), and his American mother were living in New York City when Viggo Jr. was born, in 1958. The Mortensens moved often, living in Argentina, Venezuela, and Denmark before Mortensen was a teen. “He was just restless,” Mortensen says of his father. “He always has been.”
After his parents divorced when he was 11, Mortensen and his two younger brothers moved with their mother to upstate New York, where he went to high school. Mortensen studied government and Spanish literature (he’s fluent in Spanish and Danish) at St. Lawrence University before moving to Denmark, where he sold flowers while focusing on writing poetry and short stories.
In the early 1980s, Mortensen followed a girlfriend to New York and became increasingly interested in movies and theater; “not just liking them but wondering how it was done,” he says. He was particularly inspired by the performances of Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc and Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. He found a listing for the Warren Robertson repertory theater, and went in for what he thought was an audition for a play. Instead, he found himself signed up for an acting class. Robertson encouraged him, and so while working odd jobs such as waiting tables and bartending, Mortensen committed himself to the workshop.
“Right out of the gate, I was auditioning for leads in studio movies. It would get down to the last two people,” says Mortensen, who recalls the whirlwind of being flown first-class to England for the lead in 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. “The next thing I know, I’m training with monkeys.”
He didn’t get the part. In fact, he didn’t get many. And when he got cast for such films as Jonathan Demme’s Swing Shift or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, his scenes were deleted. “I would stop telling my family when I’d be in a movie,” he says. But Mortensen soldiered on, landing his debut as an Amish farmer in Witness, as well as a part in the 1987 cult satire Salvation! He soon fell for his costar, L.A. punk band X’s lead singer Exene Cervenka. They married that year. (In the early ’90s, the two divorced. Their current relationship is “pretty good,” he says. “She knows that I love Henry, as I know that she loves him. Beyond that, I respect her as an artist, and I think she respects me as one.” As for his current love life, “I don’t think it’s pertinent,” he says.)
Mortensen’s career began to heat up after he won the Drama-Logue Critics Award for his Los Angeles stage performance in Bent in 1987. Four years later, he got his first big break, when he delivered a vivid performance as a malcontent in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, a Vietnam-era story of two Nebraska brothers.
“I remember Sean saying to me on about the sixth week of shooting,” Indian producer Phillips recalls, “‘Don, Viggo’s going to be a humongous star.’”
Although Penn was directing, and David Morse, playing the other brother, was ostensibly the star, Mortensen’s performance is what stands out.“I’ll never forget when we were out one night and there was the poster [which highlights Mortensen’s character] on Sunset Boulevard,” Phillips says. “We pulled over to the side of the road and Viggo said, ‘Don, it frightens me.’”